What is Controlling Our Minds?

Brain Bugs, what are they? Mysterious little organisms that invade our synapses causing us to blank on an interview, divulge our relationship history, or uncontrollably twitch during a presentation? Why does our brain malfunction? These mental slip-ups are even more troubling in an era of widespread technology that often outperforms our cognitive capabilities. In his book titled “Brain Bugs,” Dr. Dean Bunomano a Neurobiology and Psychology Professor, attempts to elucidate some of the inner workings of the mind. He does this effectively, making it accessible for a hard-wired technological generation.

Stepping out of the Brain Research Institute at UCLA, this professor does a decent job at simplifying the cerebral cortex and synapse connections to a wider audience. Although he is able to unravel the essentials of this highly illusive field of study, he fails to engage the reader’s attention span for the length of his numerical brain exercises. His title of “Brain Bugs” causes our mind to spasm with the causes behind Alzheimer’s disease, savants, and impulsive behavior. None of these hot topics are fully exposed within his lengthy analysis.

The book begins with an overview of cognitive manipulation strategies. One segment opens with the heading Getting in the Mood. The reader is immediately primed for insights on human arousal. However, what looks like a promising journey of sexual discovery, only leads to a cognitive manipulation concept called framing. This sultry title unfolds as a series of insipid exercises demonstrating how our brains can be influenced to link similar concepts. He proceeds to show how framing our minds with the “notion of Sushi… might bias the likelihood of thinking of Japan.”

His memorable insights relate to our susceptibility to marketing techniques. Have you ever wondered why we are so inclined to buy Nike’s endorsed by Michael Jordan? This is due to what the author calls the Advertising Bug. This notion emphasizes our desire to imitate those who are considered higher up on the social ladder. Would we still buy Nike’s if a homeless person endorsed them?

Not only do we imitate those who seem to be above us, but we also tend to copy the behaviors of those around us. The author cites a lab rat experiment as proof that we are motivated by peer pressure.  In this experiment lab rats actually showed a preference for cocoa puffs over captain crunch. This is because the rat hung out with another rat that spent the day eating cocoa puffs. Humans are known to act in the same way; our tastes and opinions can be shaped by the world around us. Consumer culture works on the mind in ways that can actually convince us we need better clothing.

The chapter that veers off the author’s consistent scientific analysis is one titled, the Supernatural Bug. The author uses an evolutionary perspective to show how supernatural beliefs do not aid us in species survival. However in every other chapter the author goes beyond the evolutionary perspective. The neurobiology professor explains that this phenomenon saying, “Supernatural beliefs can be maladaptive because they impede the acceptance of scientific and life saving knowledge.” In extreme cases, individual have died from refuse medical care on religious grounds. From Dr. Bunomano’s perspective, these religious groups become weak in evolutionary terms.

The most pressing issue of our time highlights a rarely touched upon mental puzzle. Recently we have seen the effects of our inability to cope with environmental disasters, economic crisis, and terror attacks. We are fearful and motivated to protect ourselves from these potentially decimating calamities. However, we continue to be trapped by our striking inability to plan for the future. There is a bug attacking our success in long term planning. The most common example is how many cannot effectively plan long term retirement savings? Is it such a foreign concept that we may not always want immediate gratification? The author expounds upon the neural networks that complicate this function and have led to our current economic state.

This book would be better suited as a user-friendly textbook. Students would appreciate being able to apply the science to everyday life. It is much closer to an introductory neurobiology lesson from its excessive use of diagrams and charts. If Dr. Bunomano had incorporated the arduous mental tasks and experiments into class exercises, he would have had a four star rating on ratemyprofessor.com.  But in reality, it takes Dr. Bunomano three quarters of the book to declare his purpose, which is to: “develop an awareness and understanding of our own brain bugs and how they are exploited.” However as a mass-market book, it fails to do so. Ultimately, the neurobiology professor is unable to command the attention promised by the captivating summary on the back cover.

Photography from: Lumosity.com

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